Gas Drilling in the Finger Lakes: How Will It Affect Us?

By Sandy Podulka

farm-and-marcellus-wells_hi_res.jpg

The powerful and poorly-regulated natural gas-drilling industry is moving into our area, and so far it’s been very much under the public radar. The numerous unconventional gas wells planned will dramatically transform our landscape—bringing the greatest change since the original forests were cut.  Gas drilling will touch every aspect of our lives.  If we can better understand the risks involved, we can work to help mitigate the damage and to better protect ourselves and our community.

Drilling in the Marcellus Shale

The Finger Lakes region sits above the Marcellus shale, a rock layer 6,000 to 8,000 feet deep that underlies Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Eastern Ohio and the Southern Tier and Catskill regions of NY.  It is thought to contain the third largest natural gas deposit in the world — the biggest in the US — worth over a trillion dollars. Because gas in the Marcellus shale is dispersed throughout the rock, it is costly and difficult to extract. But the recent surge in gas prices has made it profitable, so the gas industry is poised to begin intensive extraction in our area. They are waiting for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to produce its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). By setting statewide regulations for drilling in the Marcellus shale, the SGEIS will streamline permitting and allow companies to proceed without doing individual Environmental Impact Statements for each drilling site. When a draft comes out in September, the public will have just 30 days to make written comments. DEC will then produce a final SGEIS, and a flood of drilling permits is expected to be approved soon after that.

The maximum well density allowed is one per 40 acres, but companies will probably group wells on more widely-spaced “pads” of five to 15 acres: these cleared industrial sites host drill rigs, compressors, tanker trucks, dozens of huge holding tanks and, often, open lagoons of hazardous waste.

The Millennium Pipeline, which runs from Corning to Rockland County, will transport the gas to NYC and beyond. Eventually, every individual well will connect to it through smaller pipelines, forming a massive network snaking throughout our region.

 

Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Use

Until now, gas wells in our area have been drilled vertically into other rock layers, whose gas is in large, pressurized pockets: once you have drilled into the shale, the gas automatically rises.

To extract the dispersed gas in the Marcellus shale, however, companies drill vertically to the shale and then turn and drill horizontally, up to a mile or more. They then inject fluid (“fracking fluid”) under extremely high pressure to shatter the rock and release the gas trapped inside. This process, developed by Halliburton, is called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking. 

On average, 3.5 million gallons of fracking fluid are injected per hydrofracking, and wells may be fracked many times over their 40-year life spans.  This fluid contains many toxic chemicals.  The gas industry refuses to publicly disclose the specific chemicals used, claiming they are proprietary. But scientists analyzing samples from spills around the country and various documents have identified more than 200 chemicals, including benzene, toluene, xylene, kerosene, methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol (antifreeze) and hydrochloric acid.  Many of them cause cancer, nervous system disorders, developmental disorders, skin and lung problems, endocrine disruption and reproductive damage; 65 of them are classified as hazardous waste (see www.endocrinedisruption.com/chemicals.photos.php ).

The fresh water used for hydrofracking is withdrawn from local streams, lakes and aquifers free of charge—a local gift to the gas industry.

 

What Can We Do? 

• Learn as much as you can about hydraulic fracturing, and make sure your friends and neighbors are aware of the issues. For more information see:

www.shaleshock.org   (local)

www.catskillmountainkeeper.org/node/290

www.un-naturalgas.org/index.htm

www.damascuscitizens.org/index.html

www.earthworksaction.org/pubs/LOguide2005book.pdf

• Contact DEC personnel and state legislators to request that the public comment period for the draft SGEIS be extended to 60 or 90 days and include public hearings (see www.shaleshock.org/get-involved/ for contact info for federal, state, local and DEC officials).

• When the draft SGEIS comes out, make detailed comments on any regulations you think are inadequate to protect our health and safety.

• Fax or call your US Representatives and Senators to request their support of the Frac Act:  H.R. 2766 and S.1215.  These bills repeal the Safe Drinking Water Act Exemption and require public disclosure of the chemicals in fracking fluid.

• Contact your state legislators and ask that ECL Section 23-0303 be amended to restore the ability of local governments to enforce zoning, noise and other local ordinances to protect their residents and sensitive areas. Ask, also, that local governments become involved agencies for State Environmental Quality Review, which will aid their requesting environmental review of drilling permits issued in sensitive local areas. In addition, request that local government officials be notified immediately when drilling permits are issued within their jurisdiction.

• Contact your local officials to make sure they are preparing for gas drilling: setting up overweight vehicle taxes, enhancing emergency response preparedness, collecting baseline data on land and water quality and sensitive areas, and developing taxes to insure that gas companies, and not residents, pay for the damages arising from gas drilling.

 

Disposal and Water Contamination

Some of the fracking fluid remains underground forever; the rest is pumped out.  What comes out is even more hazardous than what went in because fracturing releases radioactive materials, heavy metals and salts. The result is millions of gallons of very toxic fluid, which presents a huge disposal problem. One option is treatment, but it is unclear whether current waste treatment facilities in New York will be able to handle waste fracking fluid without violating their discharge limits. Thus waste may need to be trucked to appropriate facilities in Pennsylvania.

Another disposal option, “deep-well injection,” is to pump the waste into non-producing gas wells. This is highly controversial because toxic water may migrate through fractures in the rock layers and contaminate local aquifers and drinking wells.

Wastewater also may be stored on site in open, plastic-lined lagoons. These may leak and are hazardous to wildlife. Alternatively, waste may be stored on site in huge steel tanks, which seems to create the fewest environmental hazards.

Despite industry claims to the contrary, thousands of problems, including spills, leaks and the seepage of contaminants into drinking water supplies, have been documented in fracking operations around the country. Houses, water wells and pipelines have exploded, and people have found methane levels in their water so high that they could light it on fire! Although human error and regulation short-cutting may sometimes be to blame, more disturbing concerns arise from the imprecise nature of hydrofracking itself: when gas companies fracture the shale, they have little control over exactly where fractures will develop, so fracturing fluids and natural gas can move in unexpected directions, ending up in aquifers and water wells.

Gas drilling also generates air pollutants, some of which interact with sunlight to produce ozone, which causes or aggravates numerous respiratory problems. In formerly pristine parts of rural Wyoming, gas drilling at the well density allowed in our area has created ozone levels higher than those in Los Angeles. Furthermore, unlike gas and oil production from traditional wells, extracting Marcellus shale gas is extremely noisy—large compressors run around the clock for years to suck out the unpressurized gas.

Regulations

The oil and gas industry, as a result of its massive wealth and lobbying power, is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Superfund Law, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Release Inventory of the Right to Know Act (see www.ewg.org/reports/Free-Pass-for-Oil-and-Gas/Oil-and-Gas-Industry-Exemptions ). The RCRA exemption is almost comical in its application: although 65 of the chemical constituents of fracking fluid are classified as hazardous under federal laws, the gas industry is exempt from having to treat them as hazardous once they have come back out of a well (see www.ewg.org/book/export/html/26648 ).

Moreover, in 1981, NY Environmental Conservation Law 23-0303 removed the right of towns and counties to regulate gas drilling; it is exempt from all local ordinances, including noise and planning laws, except those covering road use and real property taxes.

This leaves only the DEC to regulate and oversee gas drilling. But the DEC itself has gas leases on more than 83,021 acres of state land, which in 2006 earned nearly $9 million for NYS, raising potential conflicts of interest.  More concerning is that the DEC has only 19 inspectors for the more than 13,000 wells already active in the state. What level of environmental oversight can be provided with such limited staff?

Impacts on Landowners 
and Communities

Already, at least a third of the land area in Tompkins County has been leased to gas companies.  Most leases grant surface rights, which allow activities such as drilling, access road construction and long-term storage of fracking fluids.  Landowners receive money when they sign leases and royalty payments if a productive well is drilled on or extends below their property. Some welcome the much-needed money, but others are alarmed and regret leasing; at the time they signed, hydraulic fracturing was not being used here.

Landowners trying to sell property are discovering that many people do not want to buy land with leases, and some banks rarely give mortgages to people buying homes on land with gas leases—unless surface rights are removed. People whose drinking water supplies are contaminated or who live near large drilling operations are finding their property values decreasing dramatically.

Landowners near gas drilling are strongly advised to get their private water wells and surface water tested by a state-certified lab before drilling begins (a cost of approximately $500 per well)—if no pretesting is done, they will be unable to prove fault, and thus have no hope of receiving compensation if their water becomes contaminated (see www.communityscience.org/gaswells.html).

If at least 60 percent of the land around you is leased, you may be forced to have your land included in a “spacing unit.” This “compulsory integration” allows the gas company to drill horizontally and inject toxic fracking fluids under your property, but they may not set foot on your land. They must pay you the standard 12.5 percent royalty for any gas they take.  Even if you are not forced into a spacing unit, eminent domain may be used to route pipelines across your land.

Many communities have incurred high costs for hosting gas drilling (see http://nercrd.psu.edu/Publications/rdppapers/rdp43.pdf ). In addition to increased dust, noise and traffic (the fracking of just one well requires about 1,000 tanker loads), there are significant monetary costs:  repair of severe road and bridge damage from heavy trucks, and increased emergency response personnel and training to deal with spills, chemical fires and explosions. And, what effect will industrialization and pollution have on our local industries, such as farming, wineries and tourism?

The Larger Picture

Some argue that we should support natural gas—a “cleaner” fuel than coal and oil—because it contributes less to global warming. Gas looks much less rosy, however, when the environmental and societal costs of its extraction are considered. Moreover, it is still a fossil fuel—and both its extraction and burning contribute significantly to global warming. We must ask the critical questions:  To what lengths and level of environmental destruction are we willing to go to delay the inevitable switch to true alternative energy, such as solar, tidal and wind power?  Will we destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, our offshore fisheries, the remaining mountains of West Virginia, the Finger Lakes Region and the Catskills (the source of New York City’s drinking water) to get at every last drop and wisp of fuel?  How can we effectively change our National Energy Policy so that no one and no area must bear these burdens? 

Even as we continue to use fossil fuel, it is unconscionable not to ask:  Are there some places whose best uses, even though they harbor vast amounts of fossil fuel, are tourism, recreation, wilderness, wildlife habitat, farming, wine-producing or peaceful country living?


 

 

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